Why Write in the Age of AI?

In a comment on a recent post about learning, a person asked my opinion about new technologies called Open AI (artificial intelligence) and ChatGPT. This software is causing quite a stir in academic realms and has even made CNN and Wall Street Journal. Douglas Rushkoff, a supporter of humanity and critic of modern technologies, discussed some of the real dangers of the software, as opposed to many surface-level issues. He noted that its use ultimately separates us from each other, writer from reader, teacher from student, etc.

Some surface-level issues are that students can plug a prompt from their class into the software and it will use AI to write responses and even academic papers. The student can copy the AI-written work and paste it as their own work. According to several professors who have tried and studied the software, the outcomes of the papers are grammatically correct while also missing the mark on several items. Other concerns are that people can use it to create fake news.   

The commenter on my post specifically asked if I thought this technology could “actually make us powerless, make us think less, make us achieve less by being reliant on other things.” My answer is a resounding “yes.”

Media Ecology

I am a media ecologist. Media, in our perspective, going back to Marshall McLuhan, is any technique or technology that extends human capabilities and central nervous systems. This comes with the reality that as a medium extends, it also obsolesces and amputates.

For instance, while writing allowed humans to transmit messages to future generations, what we might call time-binding (see Alfred Korzybski and General Semantics), it also hampered their ability to memorize. This is the contrast between orality and literacy, oral culture and literate culture (see the work of Walter Ong for more on this topic).

For a short explanation, media ecologists often cite Plato’s dialogue, where Socrates explains the interplay between King Thamus and the god Theuth. Theuth, as the god of lightning, wants to give humanity writing as a way to communicate. King Thamus thought this was not good because it would also lessen people’s ability to remember things. They could write them down without the need to commit them to memory.

Deferring to (perhaps acquiescing to is a better term) AI and modern technologies amputates our abilities to do intellectual work, much like a calculator relieves us of the struggle of pen/paper or mental computation.

The human condition has nearly always been plagued by the path of least resistance or what Jacques Ellul called efficiency. But that drive is, in many ways, counterintuitive to human longevity and finding meaning in the struggle. Viktor Frankl’s quote, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure,” is a great way to put it. We find meaning amid our struggles, not in our pleasures. With AI-written papers, there’s no struggle, therefore, no meaning.

Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is also a great example of what I mean. Postman often asked of a technology: “What purpose does it serve? What problem does it solve?” If the purpose is to streamline writing, I think AI accomplishes that goal. But I don’t believe that ultimately makes us better human beings.

Writing to Learn

In my doctoral program at Duquesne University, the professors emphasize writing to learn, making the process less about outcomes or grades and more about letting the student gain knowledge through the activity. The entire process becomes trivial when we remove that purpose from the endeavor. No learning occurs, weakening mental capacity and engagement, a dumbing down if you will.

As Troy Headrick wrote, learning is “the fundamental change that occurs within a human mind and heart when that person grows intellectually and emotionally.” We can’t grow without the struggle. These are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

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You can find more of my work at www.thephilosophicalfighter.com. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing from you.


38 thoughts on “Why Write in the Age of AI?

  1. I kind of lost it on a friend recently who knows how much I love to write. She texted me she wanted to write a children’s book and simply used AI to create it.

    I told her not to text me this type of message anymore. I felt like I should just throw in the towel on my own writing projects. Who cares about personal creativity if we all want instant results created by AI?

    It’s a huge topic in academia. And worrying.

    Simultaneously, I approve of this advanced technology. I believe there can be, and is, need for it in certain environments.

    But in the creativity realm, suggesting AI as an alternate – because it’s faster – option really irks me.

    1. I agree that we cannot escape technology. I do not “approve” of it though. As an educator, I am faced with trying to teach students to learn a craft, but all they can focus on is finishing the assignment. My task, one of any educator, is to teach the student to value the process of learning rather than the outcome.

      1. I agree that it can be depressing to watch. Human existence is moving so fast now that we are hard-pressed to keep up or even know what’s going on. I think Kierkegaard said something like
        “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

      2. Another take on that perspecitve is Marshall McLuhan’s ‘rear-view mirror effect.’ He said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

    1. Yes. We all have a responsibility with the Faustian Bargain of modern technology.

    1. One possibility is not to completely cease to exist after AI, but to appropriate it in such a way that we become cyborgs. We are already seeing some of the effect due to how much we defer of our daily lives to smartphones and other portable devices.

  2. “This is the contrast between orality and literacy, oral culture and literate culture.”

    This is a false dichotomy, I think. To say that over time humans lost their ability to memorize has a few assumptions built in. Namely, that all or most people pre-written language were good at memorization and passing along a spoken story. Surly this is not the case. There were story tellers, and story listeners. I don’t see the argument that writing supplanted story telling. The case could be made that the fidelity of the written story adds value to the story. Further, consider that many many people today are committing written stories to memory, and then speaking the words of the story. Shakespeare comes to mind.

    AI is a whole ‘nother (sorry) story.

    1. I see your point but offer a different perspective. I am also citing the work of Walter Ong in the passage you quoted. There were cultures in antiquity that were largely oral, the early Hebrews and Greeks fall into this category. They passed on their culture and history through stories, fables, and plays. As writing became systametized and cultures shifted, writing became the way to pass on morals, codes, etc. This did not completely render stories or memory obsolete. Quite the contrary. The argument I and many media ecologists are making is that newer technologies modify, change, and sometimes diminish the mediums of the past. AI has the potential to diminish our ability to think critically, to write something from our own perspective, or learn effectively because we offload those responsibilities to technology. I appreciate your comment and perspective.

  3. As another academic, this worries me greatly. As The Philosophical Fighter said, students will be focused on finishing assessments and therefore may be tempted to use AI. It also worries me that if (or when) the AI becomes clever enough to pass the assessments, students may be graduating without the analytical skills required of the modern workplace.

    I definitely agree this is something that’s here to stay, and academia will have to adapt to keep up.

    As with all technological advances, there is the potential for good and bad uses; I suspect we can’t have one without the other and there are a lot of good possibilities with AI and machine learning

    1. Great points, Brenda. The question is can we slow down our lives long enough to recognize the difference between the good and bad uses? With how fast things are moving today, I am not optimistic.

      1. I must admit there’s part of me sorry im not able to just retire lol. But im sure we’ll adapt. But as you say, it’s evolving so quickly, it will be impossible to totally keep up.

      2. It also occurs to me that I have an excellent opportunity to discuss this with my students when we look at the impact of AI in the workplace, discuss the issue of using AI in assignment writing

      3. Yes. It’s a wonderful opportunity for discussion. I am doing the same with my students. We too often adopt new technologies without discussing/weighing the costs/benefits. I’m glad to see more discussion taking place about this topic.

  4. Another reason I’m glad I’m no longer a professor. I couldn’t handle trying convince students to forgo the easy route of AI and continue to go through their own struggle to create outputs that are more meaningful. But now as a freelance writer, I’m grappling with the thought of clients who think they can sidestep paying us for good writing by going the AI route because they think they’ll save money. A lot to think about. Thanks for addressing this issue.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was a freelance writer for a few years before getting into academia. I completely agree that it’s hard to find clients who understand the value of a good writer.

      1. I know. The audacity they have to only want to pay peanut for quality work. It’s like buying a car. Do you want a pinto or a BMW? You get what you pay for.

  5. “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure,”

    Writing for me has been a way of not only expressing and sharing what I have learned, but it is also how I process my thoughts and feelings. If AI were to write my posts going forward, I would feel deprived of a very useful tool to firstly help myself.

    If we cannot help ourselves, who then are we able to help?

  6. Very interesting. I agree that this AI for writing is not a good thing for humanity. In 2023, more than anything, I’m leaning into growing intellectually and emotionally, while keeping up with my blog. Thank you for this great post.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reading the post. To your goal of intellectual and emotional growth, bravo. I embrace learning wherever I can.

  7. I think you made the problem you have with creative AI and AI in general clear. You gave me a new perspective and more arguments around the topic.

    I think that like Alan Watts said “The meaning of live is just to be alive.” and that AI doesn’t fit in the alive part at all.

    AI can not fail nor succeed it does not struggle like humans. People however use these words to describe AIs work and its capabilities. The AI gets an imput and creates an output based on that much like humans but when the AI does not present the product asked for it is not its own fault. It either was a bug, to little research data or a unspecific prompt.
    But what makes art exciting to read? In my opinion it is exactly what AI does not have, emotions and struggles.
    Also what about the creating process of an creative work. I mean when I create art in any shape or form I enjoy the creating part the most. Of course I also like the finished product if I did a good job but that’s mostly because I put an effort in.

    I do not want to demonize AI.
    AI can do lots of cool stuff and surely will make big projects more accessible and some work easier. However it is a tool not an artist.
    The fact that it is going to take jobs does not scare me because whenever a job got easier or was completely replaced by machines there where new jobs. Just think about the industrial revolution.
    The fact that because of the unclear law surrounding this topic there is a lot of pirated data inside the datasets used for AI learning is making a lot of people mad. Moreover because they are profiting from it.
    This point I totally get and I hope it will get resolved soon. Until then I will refrain from using AI.

    I hope people do not forget that it is sometimes good to take a step back to climb the next mountain. A step back gives you fresh air, room to breathe and a clear vision.
    The whole drama surrounding AI is filled with fear and panic. A lot of creative people could definitely use some fresh air.

    1. I love the Alan Watts quote. He’s full of insight, in my opinion. I like that you acknowledged the emotional limitations of AI. Sherry Turkle has written a couple of books discussing that issue: Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts with us. We would do well to take a step back and a deep breath once in a while. Great points.

  8. Even though my voice and experience is just one in a billion, I would still like to share some thoughts with you on this matter. Saying that is my experience is because even though academia strives to be structured the same, it is not effective the same way in different countries. The reason I am mentioning this in relation to the AI is because in my country, kids used to do the assignment thing way before we even had computers at school. I would say that it is a bad thing that it removes the social aspect that a student might need (be nice and friendly to the person you are paying a small amount of money to photocopy their class notes or for them to write essays for you), and the good side being that it is like someone stated in a comment before – a tool.
    I am of the belief that AI should be considered just that, a tool, and that we shall perhaps have more positive merit from it if we regarded it as a tool, and not a sort of “sum of a legion” (because the AI studies loads of text and then follows an algorithm, meaning it technically contains all of our writing in its database and then dips into it to dish out what , from using it, to me looks like standardized text)
    From my personal experience, I will always be reluctant to use it for any kind of writing, because it makes me lazy, much like the existence of integrated spell-checks pretty much everywhere in today’s age has been detrimental to my grammar.

    1. I like that you have taken an objective stance on the topic, Oloriel. In media ecology, we often look at various technologies and media as tools, to be used to create and destroy, sometimes at the same time. But, we also acknowledge that the tools we use can often use us, just as Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” I agree, too, that AI and other writing technologies (spell-checkers included) can make us lazy. But, I’ve heard that “laziness is the mother of invention.” In this case, that may be more accurate than we yet know.

  9. As a person who prefers writing with a pen on paper, I can see the change in my own brain’s memory retention when I resort to solely typing notes. I can record more words per minute, but there is a fundamental difference somewhere which means I take in less of what I’m hearing or reading.

    For the books I write, I’ve taken to writing the first draft with pen and paper, so I limit my ability to “edit as I go.” This allows me to get more words on the page, and have more of the details of the story readily accessible in my mind when it comes time to type the second draft, and so any further editing.

    Tools. Technology should be seen as a tool to assist the processes we humans undertake, not as a replacement for it. In my humble opinion, that is particularly true for any kind of writing.

    Thank you for sharing. 🧡

    1. Thanks for commenting, Hamish. I agree with you that technologies are tools. I have also taken to writing my drafts with pen and paper for the same reason you mentioned.

      The effect you noted, the difference in what we remember when typing versus hand-writing, is something Nicholas Carr talks about in his book, In the Shallows. His point is that our brains have become accustomed to skimming information rather than doing a deep dive.

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